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Behind the Scenes at Psychological Science: An Interview with Editor Robert Kail

Henry Roediger

Henry L. Roediger, III

With global reach and impact, the journal Psychological Science is not only APS’s flagship publication, it’s widely regarded as one of the top places to publish in the field. The Academic Observer sat down with Editor Robert Kail for a frank discussion about the journal’s policies and processes, in the hope that aspiring authors might benefit from hearing the inside scoop on how some editorial decisions are made.

AO: As chair of the APS Publications Committee, I frequently tell people that Psychological Science is the greatest success story in the history of psychology. Every editor who has presided over the journal — and we have had five now — has seen a doubling in the number of submissions to the journal. Last year, you received nearly 2,200. And I know the latest numbers project to more than 2,700 for 2010. To what do you attribute the great success of the journal as a place where people want to publish?

RK: I think several factors are involved. Originally the format — publishing relatively brief articles that report particularly groundbreaking findings — was unusual in the field; readers enjoyed the break from encyclopedic papers published elsewhere. Another factor is that accepted manuscripts have always been edited thoroughly for clarity and accessibility (Michele Nathan, the managing editor of Psychological Science from nearly the beginning, deserves a standing ovation for her work in this regard). A third factor is that, compared to other journals in the field, we provide authors with rapid feedback: The initial evaluation — whether we will send a manuscript out for review — is completed in less than two weeks; for manuscripts that are reviewed, a decision to publish it or not is usually reached within two months. Fourth, the journal goes to the entire membership, which means exposure to 23, 000 eager readers. Finally, the impact factor has grown steadily over the years, as have all the other metrics for how a journal is ranked, ranging from downloads to h index and beyond. I am proud to say that Psychological Science’s impact factor is near the top of all journals in psychology. In fact, it is near the top in of all journals in just about all fields that have anything to do with behavioral and social science, including some biological subfields.

AO: Do you think the next editor of Psychological Science will be receiving 5,000 manuscripts at the end of her or his term? I can’t imagine it, but then I lack imagination — five years ago, I could not imagine 2,200 either.

RK: The next editor’s term will end in 2016; predicting submissions that far in the future is about as easy as predicting candidates for the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. (my entry is Stephen Colbert versus Tina Fey…) That said, over the last seven years, submissions have increased by at least 15 percent annually and the median increase is 22 percent. If the 15 percent increase were sustained through the next editor’s term, that would mean about 5,500 new submissions in 2016. That may seem implausible, but if one-fourth of the current 23,000 members were to submit one manuscript per year, that would generate 5,750 new submissions.

AO: Psychological Science is intended to cover all fields of scientific psychology. I hear complaints from psychologists on occasion that Field X (always their own field) is underrepresented and that Field Y (distant from their own) is overrepresented. What is your opinion? Are some fields truly underrepresented in the pages of Psychological Science?

RK: Identifying underrepresented fields is a tricky business because it begs the question of how to identify the expected representation from different fields. And it’s not as if we need more submissions! Nevertheless, I see two fields that seem to qualify. One is clinical psychology: Approximately 18 percent of APS members self-identify as clinical psychologists, but articles on clinical topics represent far less than 18 percent of published papers. A second underrepresented field would be I/O psychology. We publish very few applied papers from this area, even though it’s part of our mission — right on the masthead.

Kail Robert Kail

AO: For those fields that are underrepresented, is the problem with submissions (not enough papers are submitted from those fields) or with rejections (enough papers are submitted but they do not make it through the review process)?

RK: For both clinical and I/O, it’s the lack of submissions. Manuscripts submitted in these areas fare as well as submissions in any other area; we simply don’t receive many. This is particularly true for I/O: The Journal of Applied Psychology receives roughly 800 manuscripts annually, and I wish some of those authors would send their work our way!

AO: Being editor of PS must have many joys — seeing the latest, greatest work in our field — but you must have your share of frustrations, too. What are your biggest headaches in editing Psychological Science?

RK: There are three frustrations that I can highlight here. One that consumes  a surprisingly large amount of time  is dealing with authors who ignore instructions regarding submissions. These instructions have been built up over years, and they have served the journal well. They are a critical part of what has led to the excellence of Psychological Science, and if there is one take-away message from this interview I hope it is that those who want to submit a manuscript will read and follow those instructions. As one example, about 5 percent of submissions are too long, even though the Contributor FAQ, which authors are instructed to read before they upload a submission, indicates that we take word limits very seriously.

Also frustrating is the number of authors who submit papers that are completely inappropriate, because they report a tiny tidbit of knowledge, not a substantial advance. Just because a paper is short does not mean that it should be submitted to Psychological Science. I would urge prospective authors to give their papers to trusted colleagues before they submit and ask them “Is this paper appropriate for submission to Psychological Science? Are the findings really groundbreaking and likely to be of interest to a broad segment of the Psychological Science readership”

A final frustration is the number of authors who list as “preferred reviewers” people with whom they have a clear conflict of interest. You’d be shocked at how often authors suggest current or recent collaborators for reviewers. Others nominate recent mentors or students. Because it’s so competitive to be published in Psychological Science, we work very hard to verify that reviewers don’t have even a hint of conflict of interest.

Despite these concerns, though, as a group Psychological Science authors are a great group; I’ve enjoyed working with almost all of them!

AO: One way you and previous editors have coped with the deluge of submissions at Psychological Science is to triage papers at a fairly high rate. What are your feelings about this process?

RK: The triage process is an essential part of coping with the volume of submissions that we receive. If we accorded all or even a majority of submissions a full review with two to three referees outside the editorial team, we’d need a huge number of Associate Editors, which would be expensive and difficult to oversee. But the main reason for the triage rate is that only about one-third of submissions are plausible candidates for publication. The remaining two-thirds typically represent work that’s well done but belongs in specialty journals. By declining these papers quickly — often within a week of submission and almost always within two weeks — authors get feedback promptly and can rewrite for a specialty journal while the paper is still “fresh in mind.”

Another benefit of triage concerns the reviewer pool. Given the diversity of submissions that we receive, Psychological Science relies more on ad hoc reviewers than most journals. It’s easier to recruit these folks when they know that they are being asked to comment on a paper that’s been vetted by the editorial staff and is likely to be a worthwhile investment of their time.

AO: Some people claim that all papers should be peer reviewed. Do triaged papers get peer review?

RK: Yes. All submissions are peer reviewed. This is one of the most misunderstood elements of the process. At most journals, peer review has two elements. First, the decision to publish a manuscript is based on multiple, independent evaluations. Second, authors receive written feedback regarding the strengths and weaknesses of their work. The procedures that we use for preliminary evaluation of manuscripts have most of these elements. Here is how. Each manuscript submitted to Psychological Science is — without exception — read by two members of the editorial team — usually by me and always by one of the Associate Editors most knowledgeable about that particular subfield. If either of us believes that the manuscript is a likely candidate for further review, that is, if either of us believes the manuscript has even a reasonable possibility of ultimately being published, it’s sent out for further review. A manuscript is declined without this extended review only when both of us agree that it is not likely to fare well. So, authors definitely receive the multiple, independent evaluations that are an essential part of peer review. In addition, when papers are triaged, the decision letter does include a brief explanation of the reasons for the decision. I know this is often not as specific as authors want but it has been a process that has served the journal well.

AO: What are the most common reasons for papers to be triaged? What are the most common mistakes authors make?

RK: The most common reason — by far — for triaging paper is that the work isn’t sufficiently groundbreaking for Psychological Science. The work is well done and valuable, but makes an incremental contribution to a well-established line of work. These sorts of papers belong in specialty journals, not Psychological Science. Another reason for triage is when a paper is written solely with the “in-group” or expert reader in mind, and, as a consequence, has virtually no appeal for the nonspecialist reader.

AO: When I talk to psychologists in other countries, they often express the opinion that the publication system in Psychological Science and other U.S. journals is stacked against them. Yet I see many articles in Psychological Science from countries outside North America. What do the data show about non-U.S. submissions and acceptances? Are they at the same rate as for U.S. authors or does it depend on the country of origin as to whether or not that is true?

RK: The number of submissions from non-U.S. authors has increased steadily over the past few years, and we believe we handle all submissions in the same way. Now nearly half of all submissions come from non-U.S. authors (defined as a corresponding author who is affiliated with a non-U.S. institution). This is up from just over one-third in 2003. Most of these non-U.S. submissions (80 percent) come from authors in the UK, Canada, the Netherlands, and Germany. In 2008, 61 percent of submissions from these four countries were triaged, compared to 50 percent of submissions from authors at U.S. institutions. The remaining submissions (20 percent) came from 32 different countries; their submissions were somewhat less successful: 68 percent were triaged. So, yes, submissions from the U.S. fare slightly better in the initial review. However, for manuscripts that are sent out for extended review, nationality matters little.

AO: If papers are triaged, that happens within a few days of submission so authors have not lost much time. If a paper is not triaged, what is the process from then on? What percentage of reviewed papers are accepted and published?

RK: For papers that are sent out for extended review, the process is much the same as at a specialty journal: The action editor solicits two to three reviews and typically reaches a decision in six to eight weeks. About one-third of reviewed papers are accepted for publication.

AO: Through the grapevine, I’ve heard of some authors who were surprised that their papers were rejected when the issues were those that they might have been able to address in a revision. What’s up?

RK: Yes, when it comes to inviting revisions, Psychological Science is different from other journals in the field. Action editors usually invite a revision only when they’re reasonably confident that the revision is going to be publishable. If they doubt that reviewers’ concerns can be addressed, a manuscript is simply declined. This policy is driven by the number of submissions that we receive: Many of the papers that are rejected could be improved with rewriting or additional analyses. But we simply don’t have sufficient resources to deal with a raft of resubmissions. For this reason, too, resubmission to Psychological Science has always been by invitation only.

AO: Once a paper is accepted, how long until the paper appears in print? Is there a way to speed this process? Do you envision the journal increasing its frequency of publication, say to biweekly rather than monthly?

RK: Publication lag — defined as the time from acceptance of a manuscript until its appearance in print — varies across formats. To encourage authors to submit Research Reports and Short Reports, James Cutting (my predecessor) published these papers more rapidly (and also put them at the front of each issue). I’ve continued this policy: in 2008, lags were 5.6, 6, and 6.7 months for Short Reports, Research Reports, and Research Articles, respectively. Lag is driven by the number of manuscripts accepted and the number of pages available. Decreasing the acceptance rate would reduce lag, but I am loathe to reduce an acceptance rate that is already relatively low. Increasing the number of pages is plausible but I don’t see Psychological Science becoming biweekly. Frankly, with the success of This Week in Psychological Science (TWiPS, the weekly e-mail digest of forthcoming articles), I see that as the primary mode of delivering Psychological Science in the future. I expect fewer and fewer members — primarily graybeards like you and me — will elect to receive the print copy. With TWiPS as the primary source of Psychological Science articles, we could publish more papers and publish them faster.

AO: About TWiPS, how are papers selected to be featured there? Who writes the brief descriptions?

RK: All papers from Psychological Science appear in TWiPS, one to four weeks before they appear in print. Order of publication is determined chiefly by the speed with which a manuscript is edited (and how promptly authors return copy-edited manuscript and corrected page proofs). Barbara Isanski, a publications specialist at APS, writes the descriptions. They are designed to be less like a traditional abstract and more like a news headline combined with the first couple of sentences of a news article. They are designed to be attention grabbing. (And inevitably, we’ve coined a new word — each individual item is known as a TWiP.)

In fact, although TWiPS goes to every APS member (and only APS members — one of the benefits of belonging to APS), the summaries also form the base of much of the press outreach that the APS Public Affairs operation oversees. One of the side benefits of the strength of Psychological Science is how often research published there gets into national and international media. Our research is picked up daily by The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, Newsweek, and so many smaller and international outlets that it has become routine. But what a remarkable way for the science of psychology to diffuse into the public consciousness.

AO: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer these questions. The APS membership (in fact, all of psychology) is greatly indebted to you for the hard work of you and your editorial team devote to making Psychological Science so great. I have always said that editing a journal is a thankless task, but permit me to undercut my own remark by thanking you on behalf of not only the Publications Committee but all of APS.

Observer Vol.23, No.4 April, 2010

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